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Reviewed by:
  • Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War
  • Thomas C. Buchanan
Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. By Michael J. Bennett ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xv plus 337 pp. $34.95 hb).

This book is a significant contribution to the historiography of the Civil War. Union Jacks is the first comprehensive account of ordinary Civil War sailors. Steven J. Ramold's recent book Slaves, Sailors, and Citizens reveals African-American sailors, but Bennett's book considers all sailors, white and black, and effectively compares them to soldiers.1 He also compares Civil War sailors with the peacetime experience of Atlantic mariners, on which there is an abundant and recent literature. But the success of this book does not simply stem from its timeliness. It rests on massive research that will make it the standard work on the subject. Bennett scoured archives around the country for evidence that has been neglected in the thousands of volumes on the Civil War. He then weaves these chards of evidence together with the precision of the best social science and the grace of a master storyteller. Students of Civil War history would be well advised to read this compelling book.

Each chapter reveals sparkling insights into the experience of Civil War sail- ors, particularly in his linkages to working-class and maritime life. Bennett reveals the social composition of the navy (mostly urban, eastern and working-class) and how it changed over time to incorporate contraband slaves. There is wonderful material on the disorientating experience of learning to live and work on a ship. He also presents a nuanced perspective of how wartime conditions affected the feisty sailors' culture. On balance he finds that sailors did not become the disciplined, god-fearing, sober men that their middle class officers wanted them to be. Sailors hung on to a sense of "sailors rights", which included their right to riot when their terms of enlistment or pay agreements were violated. This brought them into conflict with the Navy when the Reform Act of 1862 got rid of the grog ration, made delays in payment standard, and allowed for forced service extensions once enlistments ran out. The result was [End Page 529] rioting and grumbling and a general distain for authority that Bennett nicely connects to sailors' historic recalcitrance. Dissatisfaction with conditions often contributed to racial tensions, particularly when contraband slaves joined crews later in the war. Bennett's white workers are very much members of David Roediger's racist antebellum working-class.2 Following Roediger, Bennett sees them as using racism to understand their own dependence on wages and to provide a psychological counter weight to their captains' authority. But Bennett nicely shows how their racism yielded material benefits too. Bennett's white sailors on the Mississippi Squadron were quite happy when former slaves joined their crews as they journeyed through the South. Admission of former slaves as "boys", the lowest rank in the Navy, effectively freed overworked white workers from the most menial tasks. But race relations did not progress as white workers imagined. White workers' expectations that blacks would make docile subordinates soon gave way to charges that African Americans were "saucy" and "impudent" as African Americans proved themselves to be capable hands. By the end of the war the growing prevalence of segregation in work and living quarters could not prevent race riots from breaking out on board many naval vessels.

Bennett wonderfully builds his book toward an analysis of the experience of naval warfare. This concluding chapter rests on an earlier discussion in which he shows that sailors spent considerable time bored, waiting and watching for Confederates. Thus by the time the shells start flying the reader fully anticipates the fray. Bennett does not tell you the war was horrible, he makes you feel it to be so as he puts you in the shoes of men who listened and watched for the tell tale signs of approaching death. The reader finds oneself listening for the scream of a cannon ball piercing the boiler of a Mississippi gunboat or imagining that shells were getting closer to the ship as enemy gunners honed in on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 529-530
Launched on MUSE
2007-01-09
Open Access
No
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